You are on page 1of 0


ools for troubleshooting

distillation columns include
sophisticated techniques such as
computation fluid dynamics (CFD) and
gamma scans, as well as the more
fundamental measurements of
temperature and pressure. The
temperature variation around the
circumference of a distillation column is
a powerful diagnostic tool, able to infer
composition gradient at a given
Variations in composition and
temperature are consequences of
problems with internal liquid or vapour
stream distribution, poor mixing of
external and internal streams at feed
locations, or inadequate circulating
reflux (pumparound) stream distribution
causing uneven cross-sectional area
condensation in heat-removal zones.
While none of these can be directly
measured, they can be inferred from
radial temperature measurements at the
same elevation in a packed column. This
technique was used to facilitate the
revamp scope definition of a large
atmospheric crude tower at a Petrobras
Measuring fractionation
Packed column composition and
temperature gradients at the same
elevation degrade fractionation between
products and reduce product yield. Since
refiners typically use the gap or overlap
between the 95% and 5% distillation
temperatures on heavy oil columns as a
measure of fractionating performance
between adjacent streams, this value
varies as fractionation performance
In one case, a refiner changed from
trays in their FCC main column to
structured packing, with the expectation
that the gap between gasoline and LCO
products would improve from 24 to
33C. However, it actually decreased to
0C because of poor initial liquid
distribution into the packed bed. So the
apparent fractionation with over 6m of
surface area structured
packing was less than one
theoretical stage. In another FCC
example, half the spray nozzles
above a packed LCO pumparound
zone plugged, causing the
temperature leaving the bed to
vary by over 75C. Even though
the liquid distribution quality was
very good into the gasoline/
LCO fractionation bed, 5m of
structured packing appeared to
have only two theoretical stages.
Vapour composition and
temperature entering the bed were
not uniform, so the fractionation
Packed column principles
Ideally, each cross-sectional area of
a packed bed should have uniform
liquid (L) and vapour (V)
composition and rate entering it,
otherwise parts of the bed will
have different L/V ratios and
compositions. L/V ratio, vapour
composition entering the bed, and
packed bed height drive
fractionation. In one instance,
poor distributor design caused
parts of the bed to be nearly dry.
Hence, the vapour composition
entering the bottom of the bed
and leaving was nearly identical in
the cross-sections where the liquid
rates were low. Poor fractionation, as
measured by 95%/5% distillation
temperature differences between
adjacent products, resulted.
Packed columns use liquid
distributors, collector trays and vapour
horns for the initial distribution of
liquid and vapour streams, respectively.
In addition, collector trays mix the
liquid leaving a packed bed prior to
redistributing so that composition and
temperature gradients are not
propagated throughout the column.
Packings inherent distribution quality
will create some liquid maldistribution,
even if the initial vapour and liquid
distribution to the bed is perfect. So
some radial temperature and
composition gradient always exist above
and below a packed bed. However, the
designers need to be aware of the all
factors influencing packed bed
performance and design the equipment
to minimise the effects. Packing itself or
typical collector trays will not correct
poor initial liquid or vapour
distribution, or composition gradient.
Temperature gradient -
composition gradient
Figure 1 shows the measured
temperatures in an atmospheric crude
column after start-up. The revamp
replaced standard trays with structured
Crude column revamp using
radial temperature profiles
Designers need to be aware of all the factors influencing packed bed performance
such as feed zone mixing problems. Accurate assessment of temperature
variations above and below fractionation zones can pinpoint efficiency problems
Glaucia Alves Da Silva Torres and Silvia Waintraub, Petrobras, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Edward L Hartman, Process Consulting Services Inc, Houston, Texas, USA
Figure 1 Inadequate feed mixing
Temperature, C
Flash drum
Transfer line
Transfer line
packing to increase capacity and
improve distillate yields. During the
design phase, two thermowells and TIs
were installed 180 degrees apart above
and below each packed bed to help
monitor liquid or vapour distribution
quality. When the revamp did not meet
its design distillate yields, radial
temperature measurements were
essential to identify the root cause. In
this case, vapour and liquid distribution
quality were very good, yet the apparent
fractionation and product yields did not
meet the design basis expectations.
Feed zones must adequately mix all
external and internal streams.
Otherwise, composition gradients are
generated. In this case, two feeds, cold
flash drum and hot heater outlet
streams enter the flash zone through
two nozzles. Flashed crude overhead
stream was 163C, heater outlet stream
was 374C, and stripped hydrocarbon
vapour was 357C. The vapour
temperature leaving the flash
zone directly above the flash
drum stream inlet nozzle was
28C colder than the opposite
side of the column.
Furthermore, the same
temperature pattern
remained throughout the
three packed beds. Neither
the collector trays nor the
structured packing corrected
the temperature or
composition gradient
initiated in the flash zone.
Although the cold flash drum
overhead vapours influence
on distillate yield was
anticipated, the designers
assumed flash drum vapour
would mix with the heater
outlet stream inside the
vapour horn.
During the design phase,
the quenching effect of the
cold flash drum stream on
flash zone vapour rate was
anticipated, although the
magnitude was not. Flash
drum vapour was routed to
the flash zone because it
occasionally was black prior
to the revamp. Since the
revamp increased the feed
rate, the flash drum overhead
vapour contained a
significant amount of liquid
carry-over due to foaming in
the flash drum. Entrained
liquid from the flash drum
reduced AGO product yield
by 2% on whole crude.
When the cold flash drum
overhead liquid and vapour
entered the flash zone, a
significant portion of the
vapour from the heater was condensed
to provide the heat needed to raise the
flash drum vapour and liquid
Distillate product yield was low,
because the flash drum foam layer was
not contained inside the drum. Liquid
and vapour from the flash drum and the
charge heater outlet streams were not
well mixed in the flash zone, therefore
temperature and composition gradients
were created across the cross-sectional
area of the flash zone. These gradients
were propagated through three packed
beds. At each elevation, temperature
indicators 180 degrees apart varied by
approximately 28C. Thus, the liquid
and vapour compositions were not
uniform. This example shows that
packing and well-designed collector
trays do not correct feed zone mixing
problems. The designer needs to ensure
that composition and temperature
gradients are not created, because they
are not easily corrected by packed
column internals.
Radial skin temperature
Vessel skin temperatures, although
slightly lower than column internal
temperatures, can be used to infer
temperatures in the column. The
variations between temperatures inside
the column and on the vessel shell are
less than 10C. Assuming ideal
conditions, the temperature leaving a
crude columns packed kerosene/light
diesel fractionation section would be the
same around the circumference of the
column. However, liquid and vapour
distribution, and vapour composition
entering the packed bed must be
uniform across the column cross-
sectional area for this to happen.
Case study
Petrobras operates a large crude unit at
its Landulpho Alves refinery (RLAM)
near Salvador in Bahia state, Brazil. The
atmospheric crude column was designed
in the late 1980s, with first-generation
internals, including orifice pan
distributors, pipe orifice headers and
random packing. In 2001, Petrobras
began a study to evaluate options to
increase unit capacity, but it also needed
to identify the underlying problems that
reduced kerosene product yield. Figure 2
shows the crude column with six
packed beds.
The kerosene/light diesel
fractionation section is located just
above the transition zone, where the
column swedges from 7 to 6.1m. Liquid
overflowing the kerosene product
collector tray feeds an orifice pan
distributor above a 3.8m-deep bed of
50mm-diameter random packing. Below
the fractionation section is a pipe orifice
header to distribute intermediate
circulating reflux to a 4.8m-deep bed of
random packing where approximately
16MKcal/hr of heat is removed. During
the troubleshooting effort, this section
of the column was studied in detail
(Figure 3). A test run with complete heat
and material balance data gathering,
pressure survey and a radial temperature
survey above and below the
kerosene/light diesel fractionation bed
were done to establish base line unit
performance. Kerosene product
distillation tail was 15C and the overlap
(5/95) between kerosene/light diesel was
30C during the test run, both indicative
of fractionation problems.
Temperature survey
Radial temperature surveys were done at
an elevation just below the liquid
distributor feeding the fractionation
section and below the fractionating bed
Heavy naphtha
Light diesel
Heavy diesel
Top circulating
Heavy naphtha/
light diesel
circulating reflux
Light diesel/
heavy diesel
Heavy diesel/
Bottom circulating
Figure 2 Petrobras crude column
(Figure 4). Both showed significant
temperature gradient. Vessel skin
temperatures above the bed varied from
216259C, while below the bed and
above the intermediate circulating
reflux stream low-to-high temperatures
were 233275C. Temperature
variations, above and below the bed,
were approximately 42C. Therefore,
problems existed inside the column.
Computer modelling of the test run
heat and material balance data was used
to generate internal liquid and vapour
loadings to evaluate packing and
distributor hydraulics. Further
evaluations were performed to
determine if other design issues would
need to be addressed. In this case, the
columns fractionation beds distributors
were all gravity-flow orifice pans with
holes located on the bottom of the pan
between the vapour risers. The
intermediate circulating reflux
(pumparound) was distributed with a
pipe orifice header using a large main
line and many smaller laterals with
thousands of 13mm holes drilled in the
bottom of the pipe.
The orifice pan
distributors were designed
with holes distributed so that
initial liquid distribution
quality was reasonably
uniform. The height of liquid
on the distributors depends
on the flow rate, total
distributor hole area and
vapour velocity through the
risers. Since no liquid
distributor can be installed
perfectly level, good
design practice maintains
approximately 50mm liquid
level on the pan at minimum
flow to ensure reasonable
distribution. Vapour risers
need to have sufficient
height to keep the liquid
from overflowing. Riser
height for the kerosene/light
diesel liquid distributor was
370mm. Therefore, once
the height of liquid reached
this level, it would begin
to overflow the risers.
Furthermore, orifice pans
filled with liquid deflect;
hence, the riser with the
lowest elevation will be the
first to overflow. The
overflow is not uniform
down all risers.
Column heat and material balance
modelling calculated 428m3/hr of
liquid flowing from the collector tray to
the orifice pan distributor above the
kerosene/light diesel fractionation
section. Yet, the design maximum flow
was only 179m
/hr. Liquid height would
need to be 1100mm based on the
distributor holes area, yet the risers were
only 370mm tall. Thus, one cause of the
high temperature variation was poor
initial liquid distribution. Due to the
large temperature variation below the
bed it was also likely the pipe distributor
was not uniformly distributing liquid. A
review of the distributor design showed
the pipe total orifice area was
approximately 50% of the mainline
header pipe cross-sectional area. This
design will not adequately distribute the
liquid across a 7m column. In the heat
transfer zone, if liquid distribution is
not uniform, heat removal varies across
the column cross-sectional area,
resulting in temperature and
composition variations.
Distributors above both the
fractionation section and the
intermediate circulating reflux section
need to be replaced to improve
fractionation. While the newer, more
sophisticated techniques such as CFD
and gamma scanning are becoming
more popular, radial temperature
profiles were able to identify the root
cause of poor fractionation in this
Glaucia Alves Da Silva Torres works at
Petrobras headquarters distillation group.
She has been with Petrobras since 1979
and her experience includes refinery and
basic design, revamps, troubleshooting,
test runs, distillation and vapour recovery.
Da Silva Torres earned a chemical
engineering degree from Federal University
of Bahia (UFBA), Brazil.
Silvia Waintraub has been working at
Petrobras research and development
center (CENPES) since 1986. Her
experience includes process simulation
development, basic design, revamps,
troubleshooting, test runs, distillation and
solvent deasphalting. Waintraub earned a
chemical engineering degree from Federal
University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ), Brazil
and a masters degree in nuclear
engineering from COPPE-UFRJ, Brazil.
Edward L Hartman is a process engineer
with Process Consulting Services Inc,
Houston, Texas. His work includes revamp,
process design and field troubleshooting of
refinery processes. At the time of the case
study described, Hartman worked as a
lead process specialist for Koch Petroleum
Groups Corpus Christi refinery and for
Koch-Glitsch Inc.
circulating reflux return
circulating reflux
Liquid distribution to heat
removal bed needs to be uniform
diesel fractionation
Radial temp.
Radial temp.
Figure 3 Troublesome fractionator section
circulating reflux
diesel fractionation
Radial temp.
Radial temp.
252 254
Figure 4 Radial temperature surveys